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Embarrassment for the Centre

In a major embarrassment for the Centre, the Uttarakhand High Court on Thursday quashed the imposition or President’s rule in the state and asked the Harish Rawat government to prove its majority in the Assembly on April 29. Suffice to say, the decision comes as a major relief for ousted Chief Minister Harish Rawat. Coming down heavily on the Centre for its March 27 proclamation under Article 356, a division bench of the high court said that the imposition of the President’s rule was contrary to the law laid down by the Supreme Court. It observed that the material considered for imposing President’s rule “has been found wanting”. Significantly, though, the court also upheld the disqualification of nine dissident Congress MLAs and said that they have to pay the price of committing the “constitutional sin” of defection by being disqualified, according to the Press Trust of India. With the suspended MLAs disqualified from voting, the Congress will in all likelihood retain the state, having already paraded 34 MLAs before Governor KK Paul. To the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on how the constitutional crisis unfolded in the state. Uttarakhand plunged into a political crisis when nine Congress legislators, including former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, revolted against the Chief Minister and turned to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for support. And this rebellion played itself out during voting on the Congress-led government’s Appropriation Bill.  The opposition claimed that it had a majority of 35 MLAs, including 9 Congress rebels, in the Assembly out of 67 MLAs present on the day of voting. But it was declared passed in the Assembly by the Speaker. Enraged, the Congress rebels and the BJP alleged that the Bill was defeated but the Speaker did not test it with a proper division of votes.

On the floor of the House, these MLAs insisted on a division of votes but the Speaker declared it passed by a voice vote when actually only 32 of the 67 present members supported it. “In 68 years of Indian democracy, such an incident has not happened. I don’t think there has been a greater subversion of the parliamentary system in India than this,” said Union Minister Arun Jaitley. But matters escalated on March 27 after the state was brought under President’s rule. The Centre reasoned that a “breakdown of governance” and constitutional machinery had precipitated its decision to impose President’s rule. But the NDA government stands accused of constitutional impropriety primarily because Governor KK Paul had given Chief Minister Harish Rawat time until the next day (March 28) to prove his government’s majority on the floor of the Legislative Assembly. The Supreme Court has laid down certain guidelines so as to prevent the misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution. The majority enjoyed by the Council of Ministers shall be tested on the floor of the House, according to the apex court. Anyway, the decision to impose President’s rule was followed by an interim order of the Uttarakhand High Court that permitted the Congress-ruled Uttarakhand government to take a floor test. But the division bench of the court stayed the order, although it finally came down on the NDA-led Centre on Thursday.

Considering the nature of the crisis, one could reasonably argue for the imposition of Article 356. But the court’s decision not to reserve its verdict for later has cast serious aspersions on the Centre’s motives behind its initial decision to impose President’s rule. The Congress had feared that the Centre might revoke President’s Rule and try and get the BJP to form the government in the state before the court’s final verdict. But the court took cognizance of the Congress party’s fears and quashed President’s rule on Thursday itself.  Prior to the judgement, the court slammed ))the Centre for planning to attempt the revocation of President’s Rule before its verdict. The Centre had earlier assured the division bench that the court would be informed about its decision. But the assurance was only until April 17. However, when the court asked the Centre once again if it would indulge in such attempts, the latter’s counsel remained silent, according to The Hindu. Its silence on the matter gave the court enough reason to pass its judgement in the case on Thursday itself. Post the judgement, the NDA-led government has been in a state of denial. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju said that the judgement posed no embarrassment to the NDA-led government. He maintained that the imposition of President’s Rule by the Centre was not a mistake, although the court thought otherwise. Latest reports indicate that the Centre will challenge the Uttarakhand High Court’s verdict setting aside President’s rule in the state in the Supreme Court today. Suffice to say, this story isn’t over yet.
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